The Roads Less Travelled

A Red River Gorge Trail Guide by Erin Maines

Preface

I’m writing this guide as a response to a lot of requests I have been getting from friends and family to give them a “must-see” of the Gorge. On account of the large amount of time I have spent there over the past 3 years, one might think that I would know every nook and cranny and know the ins and outs of every trail at the Gorge. While I do know a lot about navigating the Gorge, what the interesting sites to see are, and especially what not to do at those sites, I don’t know everything about it. I don’t think any one person can. So while reading this guide, you might find a few mistakes littered across these pages about certain turns to take, or the conditions of each trail. Part of that is my own ignorance for either misremembering certain details about trails, or the conditions of the trail changing from when I last visited. Whatever the conditions of the trails and however accurate my descriptions of them are, I would urge you to exercise caution, planning, and above all common sense. If you fall off of Hanson’s point trying to take a selfie because I told you to go there and see the view, that’s on you. Make sure you know these trails and your limitations before going on any of them, and make sure you bring plenty of water when you know there won’t be any!

Above all, when you’re at the Gorge you are there to appreciate nature and its beauty. How you appreciate its beauty is up to you, and there are an uncountable number of ways to do so. So take as many selfies as you want, post all the videos you want to your social media, set up shop and paint the scenery, or just walk in the woods and soak it all in. However you decide to enjoy the Gorge, is the most correct way to do it. Just remember to leave no trace, pack out what you brought in, and definitely do not disturb the wildlife. It’s their home you’re walking around in!

One common theme I’ve noticed when hiking over the years is feeling rushed to get a trail done in a certain amount of time because of all of the external factors that want to pull you away from the Gorge: restaurants closing soon, appointments you need to make, calls you need to take, or maybe you just want to get home before sunset. Each of these are completely valid but are things to consider before making the trip out to Slade. In my experience the best way to experience the Gorge is by turning off my phone (it doesn’t get service anyway), taking off any watches, taking a deep breath, and enjoying my time that I have at the Gorge because it won’t last forever. But just because I do something one way doesn’t mean you should do it to. So I encourage you to experiment and find out what works for you and how you can best enjoy this unique and special place.

But the main questions I get asked: “where should I go?” or “what is the best trail to hike?” don’t have a straight answer until I know what you would like to do. Do you like rock climbing? Going up mountains? Maybe waterfalls are more of your idea of a good time, or maybe you’re scared of heights. Maybe you want the most exhausting workout you’ve ever had, or you just want to be able to park, see the beautiful views, and leave. It’s a complex problem that I’m going to try to give you the tools to solve for yourself in this guide. There is no “one-size-fits-all” trail, but hopefully with this guide, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about what you want to do and how you want to explore the Gorge in the future. Maybe one day I’ll be reading your (hopefully better) guide about the Gorge and all of the things you can see there!

How this guide is laid out

If you’re an absolute newcomer to the Gorge, this first section coming up is just for you. It’s a list of all of the “major trails” that get the most attention from the masses that come to the area each year. Some are more popular than others, but they’re all popular to some degree. If you’re a hardened veteran of these trails, you can still get some enjoyment out of them by reading about some of the things I did wrong and how that turned out for me!

After the first section, everything will be organized by region in the Gorge. Now, I’m just an engineering student not a geographer. If I don’t get the regions exactly how they are scientifically, that’s okay. I’m writing about how I see the Gorge, and the methods that help me view it in my head. If you have a different way of seeing things, you are under no obligation to use my system (or even this guide)!

Those regions are:

  • Auxier Ridge/North Tunnel Ridge
  • North Gorge/Indian Staircase area
  • Central Gorge/Grey’s Arch/Chimney Top Valley
  • East Gorge/Swift Camp Creek Area
  • Natural Bridge State Park

I’m also going to be stealing Jerrell Goodpaster’s system of trail rating from his book Hinterlands which I absolutely recommend for you to buy right this second. He does a far better job explaining the Gorge than I ever could and has decades more experience!

You’ll see that I rate a trail on two factors: quality and difficulty on a scale of 1-10. With quality, 1 is the worst possible rating and 10 is the best. Most trails at the Gorge are at least a 5-6 for me, but even though I’m a pretty agreeable person I’ll try to be as objective as I can for this guide. Difficulty is similar. 1 represents the easiest possible trail, while 10 represents a trail you probably shouldn’t make your first experience at the Gorge unless you’re already an experienced hiker or are very confident in your abilities. There are no 1s at the Gorge, unless you want to stop at an overlook area, enjoy the view, and leave to go back home.

I will do my best to include a map of the areas I am describing and, like Jerrell, I’ll be including a map section at the end of this guide in case you want to skip my ramblings and get to the good stuff right away. I encourage you to get creative with some of these trails and link them together to create loops or super-trails to enhance your Gorge-going experience!

Littered throughout the pages of this guide will be little tidbits of information that I think are interesting about some of the trails. They’re things that I’ve heard from people at the forest service, researched, read on information signs, or have absorbed through urban legend. A lot of my nuggets of knowledge aren’t fact-checked so take everything with a grain of salt!

Major Trails at the Red

Like I said on the previous page, this is a list of some of the trails that stand out the most to me, and what most people are going to be seeing at the Gorge when they go. With that in mind, remember that these trails are popular for a reason so be sure to plan ahead and get a spot in the parking lot before you’re forced to park in a ditch on the side of the road. Most trails usually fill up before 11am on the weekends. Although depending on the trail, on very busy days you could see them fill up before 9am. If you come during the week you should still keep all of this in mind, but you can relax knowing that the masses are mostly all at work and enjoy some peace and quiet to yourself. That being said, I have arrived pretty late to some of these trails and have been able to find parking even if it isn’t the best spot.

With any of the trails you see in this guide, please come prepared! Don’t just take my word for it that the conditions I experienced will be the same ones that you do as well. Make sure to bring plenty of water, rope if you need it, food, and anything else you might need in case of an emergency. Take a look at the official maps and look online for trails that include any unofficial areas to make sure you’re getting the most up to date information. If you’re particularly good at navigating in the woods, or just have a keen eye for hidden trails, you will probably be fine navigating some of these trails with just a map and some directions. For others, though, some thorough research might be needed for you to find your way around these trails.

Auxier Ridge Trail

Quality: 8

Difficulty: 6-8 depending on the route you take

Highlights: Scenic, almost panorama-like views of the Auxier branch and Nada valleys

Dangers: Sheer cliffs and steep drop-offs

Trailhead: Take exit 33 off of Mountain Parkway and turn left onto route 11. Turn right onto route 15 and go for 3.5 miles until you see a small one lane bridge on your left. Turn left and keep going straight for another 3.7 miles until you reach the end of the road at a roundabout. Follow the signs for the Auxier Ridge Trailhead.

From what I’ve heard, this is the most popular official trail at the Gorge. When you get out and see it, you’ll understand why. A combination of a spectacular view and relative ease of hiking make this trail one you should go to at least once. On certain sections of the trail you can still see the damage from a bad fire that happened a few years ago. If you come in the spring, you can see mountain laurel blossoms, wild blueberries, and whole host of other plants to admire. This used to be my favorite trail to take Gorge newcomers to, however that has since been replaced by another trail in this section. The main reason I like this trail so much, especially for new people, is that it seems like a normal trail for the first hour or so until you get to Haystack Rock, at which point the trees suddenly clear out and you can see for miles all around. If you keep going past the main attraction, you will get to Courthouse Rock, which you can climb if you have the guts! This isn’t a climbing guide, so if you’re looking for techniques on how to do that, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. I climbed it myself at the time of writing this, but be aware that if you fall while climbing, there’s no recovery from that. There’s a fork at Courthouse Rock that can make or break this trail for you. Those who are here for the nice view and don’t believe climbing escarpments are a good use of your time can turn around at Courthouse Rock and go back to the parking lot. You’re not really missing much except for a beautiful creek and some picturesque rocks that only can be found at the Gorge. However, if you like a challenge you can go down into the valley to get a good leg-day workout in. Eventually, you’ll have the option to take another fork to either go to Double Arch or back to the parking lot. If you’re feeling particularly energized, you can take a right to go to Double Arch, otherwise you can take the left that leads you back to the parking lot.

If you have a water filter, but don’t want to go to Double Arch you can absolutely keep right at the fork until you reach Auxier Branch. There, you can filter your water and turn around to meet back up with the Courthouse Rock loop trail. Make sure you go right at the fork if you decide to take a water break. Once you reach the end of the Courthouse Rock trail, you can put your climbing skills to the test! There is a small relatively easy “scramble” that will get you back to the main Auxier Ridge trail. When you get back on that one, you can follow the signs kindly provided by the forest service to get back to the parking lot.

Those of us who chose to go to Double Arch don’t have much to do in terms of navigation. Just follow the trail blazes and watch for the signs that will point you in the right direction towards Double Arch. Once you’re done, follow the signs for tunnel ridge road and walk on the gravel road for about 30-40 minutes. You’ll see signs for the parking area once you start seeing gates and other markers of civilization. Congratulations! You just made a really big loop!

Hanson’s Point Trail

Quality: 9

Difficulty: 5

Highlights: A true 360 panorama of the Chimney Top Valley, and one of the best views in the Gorge

Dangers: Sheer cliffs, exposed rock edges, random spur trails

Trailhead: [Note: this is copied from Hinterlands] “From Exit 33 of Mountain Parkway, take route 15 east 3.5 miles to Tunnel Ridge Road. Drive 0.6 miles on Tunnel Ridge Road to the Pinch ‘Em Tight Trail Parking area. Park and hike the Pinch ‘Em Tight trail 1.7 miles to the Rough Trail. The Pinch ‘Em Tight is part of the Sheltowee Trace, so don’t be confused by the signs. At the intersection with the Rough Trail, turn left (NW) and hike 400 feet to the trailhead. Exit the Rough Trail just before it drops off the left side of a ridge. The Hanson’s Point trail essentially goes straight.”

This is the first unofficial trail in this guide! Don’t believe me? Try looking it up on any forest service map of the Gorge. It won’t be there. The hardest part of this trail is navigating to the trailhead, which you can make as difficult or as easy as you want! Jerrell gave you guys the easy way in the directions above, but you can get creative with how to get there. If you wanted to, you could hike in from Grey’s Arch, or even from Koomer Ridge. I’ve attacked this trail from pretty much every possible angle, and they’re all extremely doable.

Once you get on to Hanson’s Point Trail, it’s essentially a straight shot to one of the best views at the Gorge, if not the best view at the Gorge. I still have a lot of places to check out, but this place is always my favorite. You’ll plow through five campsites (2 huge and 3 small) before you get to the main overlook. This is an excellent place to spend the night if you got your overnight pass from one of the gas stations at exit 33. I’d recommend the sites closest to the overlook for convenience.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the view from Hanson’s Point! I literally screamed out of awe (and probably scared a few birds nearby). If you do nothing else at the Gorge, you need to go to Hanson’s point. The view simply doesn’t compare to anywhere else I’ve been to in the area. Several places come close, but none are as good as the view from this overlook.

If you are a fellow space-enthusiast, you should plan to spend the night here a few times throughout the year and stargaze on top of the overlook. The exposed rock provides an excellent space to look up and see the stars unobstructed. During meteor showers, this place can get pretty exciting, although the view at night is always superb.

The trickiest part of the Hanson’s Point Trail is staying on path when going through the large campsites. There are two very large campsites that could accommodate even the largest of scout troops. The trick with those is to follow the ridge if you get lost and look for anything that looks like a well-worn trail. Sometimes spur trails can be deceptive, so be careful! Wandering campers going to the bathroom in the night can create those tiny ones, which you do not want to get lost on!

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there are some hidden trails off of this hidden trail! At the second major campsite, there is a trail which takes you to the Pinch-em Tight Gap Overlook where you can see Revenuer’s Rock- said to be the spot the IRS watched KY-715 during prohibition to catch bootleggers. There are also two arches nearby the Hanson’s point lookout called the Ledford Arches. As of writing this, I have not been to them, but they are on my maps and on many sites online for those who are curious!

Ever since covid, this trail has been packed to the brim with day hikers and the like trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a good view! Especially this one. That being said, if your goal is to avoid people when heading out into nature, this trail might be better visited in the winter or on a weekday. One of the latest updates to the Leave No Trace standard of outdoor ethics is to avoid geotagging your photos. Part of the reason this trail has blown up in recent times is because of sites like Facebook and Instagram. So if you want to share your photos, just make sure to do so responsibly!

Chimney Top Trail

Quality: 7

Difficulty: 2

Highlights: Easy to see and excellent views of the Chimney Top Valley

Dangers: Exposed cliffs and steep drop-offs

Trailhead: Take exit 44 off of Mountain Parkway and turn right onto route 15. Continue on route 15 for about 5 minutes until you reach the intersection of route 15 and route 715. Turn right onto 715. Continue straight until you see the signs that point you toward Chimney Top Rock. On Chimney Top Road, continue for about 10 minutes until you reach the roundabout at the end. The trailhead is at the 9 o’clock position of the roundabout.

This is the easiest official trail in all of the Gorge. The trail to Chimney Top Rock is completely paved until the very end and only lasts one mile. For the amount of work you have to put in to getting here, the view almost feels like cheating! If you time it right in the morning, you can get to the viewing area before sunset and catch the morning fog. There’s not much to explore on this trail. There are a few spur trails to overlooks of Half Moon rock and each side of the ridge, but other than that it’s just this viewing area. If you want to see these views for yourself, don’t come all the way out here just for Chimney Top. There are plenty of other trails to whet your hiking appetite! You can use this as an appetizer or go here for dessert after a long day of hiking. 

 
 Gray’s Arch Trail

Quality: 7

Difficulty: 4 (8 if you climb Gray’s Arch)

Highlights: Iconic trail with a staple Gorge arch

Dangers: Exposed cliffs and steep drop-offs, climbing Gray’s Arch

Trailhead: From Exit 33 of Mountain Parkway, take route 15 east 3.5 miles to Tunnel Ridge Road. Drive 0.8 miles on Tunnel Ridge Road to the Gray’s Arch Picnic and Parking area.

This is one of the top trails the Forest Service recommends new hikers to do at the Gorge. I’d put this trail in the same category as Sky Bridge, the Natural Bridge Original Trail, and Hanson’s Point for trails newcomers should absolutely do if they have only one day to spend at the Gorge and don’t want to work too hard. That being said, this trail can be as hard or as easy as you want to make it. You can get very creative with loops on this trail. I like to call Gray’s Arch the Grand Central Station of the Gorge. From this trail, you can pretty much get to any other trail if you know where you want to go. There are also ample side trails that will

Starting at the Picnic area, follow the signs for Gray’s Arch for about ¼ of a mile and take the main trail until you get to the junction with the rough trail. Make sure you take a right here! Going left will take you to the Martin Fork trailhead, and to 715. You’ll know you’re going the right way when you encounter a clearing with tall grass which I affectionately call the Gray’s Arch Meadow. Past this point is when the trail starts to descend into the area where the arch is located. On the left side of the trail, you might notice some spur trails that will tempt you to divert from the main trail and take them. They lead to some pretty neat overlooks, including some of 715 and excellent-looking rock faces. For those feeling the call of adventure, you can absolutely check these out and return to the point where you started when you’ve appreciated the overlooks sufficiently.

Continuing down the ridge, you’ll come to a set of stairs constructed by the Red River Gorge Trail Crew several years ago. Go down those stairs and keep to the right at the bottom of them to get to Gray’s Arch. I accidentally took a left here when I came to Gray’s Arch for the first time. Needless to say, I ended up hiking the rough trail a very long time before I realized that I missed the arch.

Once you get to the arch, it’s a bit of a minor scramble to get to the base. From there you can appreciate the arch from below, or you can loop around the back to find a scrambling path up to the top. If you choose this option, BE CAREFUL. Countless people have died climbing Gray’s Arch. The view from up top is good, but it’s not worth your life, and just because I survived it doesn’t guarantee you will. Once you’ve sufficiently appreciated the arch, you can turn around and head back the way you came towards the parking lot.

If you come here after a good rain, you might see a waterfall in the rock shelter next to Gray’s Arch. The Red is not particularly known for its waterfalls, and this is no exception. It does, however, provide a good source of water if you brought your water filter with you.

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